I am trying to find out if the : character is allowed in the name of ESRI's shapefile field.

I googled, but I couldn't find an answer. Here is an interesting quote from the article from ESRI FAQ stating:

Eliminate any characters that are not alphanumeric character or an underscore.

Does this mean that the : character is not allowed? Or is it allowed to use it, but it is recommended not to use it? If yes, then why?

2 Answers 2


Field name restrictions inside a shapefile are determined by dBase limitations. There are four single rules:

  1. Up to 10 character max.
  2. First character in field name must start with a letter.
  3. Field names are unique.
  4. And, from Understanding DBF Essentials

(...) they can contain any combination of the letters A through Z, the digits 0 through 9, the colon (:) (in dBASE II field names only), and the underscore (_).

ESRI Shapefile works with dBase III+.

  • 1
    Can you upload a part of your .oms file? I want to check what happens or if are an alternative way to export that kind of data
    – aldo_tapia
    Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 13:14
  • 1
    I tried in R using osmar and rgdal without problem, works perfect. I check field names in QGIS and are right. A basic and simple code . And results, check them.
    – aldo_tapia
    Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 17:43
  • 1
    Because shapefiles have the same field than original file: <node id="32633413" visible="true" version="6" changeset="13406299" timestamp="2012-10-07T23:36:07Z" user="Davlak" uid="217070" lat="41.8994226" lon="12.4969449"/>. Column character isn't a field, is a tag, such like: <tag k="bus" v="yes"/> <tag k="highway" v="bus_stop"/> <tag k="internet_access" v="wlan"/> <tag k="internet_access:name" v="AtacWiFi"/> <tag k="internet_access:operator" v="RomaWireless"/> <tag k="name" v="Nazionale/Quattro Fontane"/> <tag k="operator" v="ATAC"/> ..., right?
    – aldo_tapia
    Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 21:27
  • 1
    Tags are like description on .kml files, in a field you can have a lot of tags, even .osm files have a similar structure than .kml. If you want to extract tags use osmosis, not GDAL to create new fields based on those tags. Are you trying to get something like this?
    – aldo_tapia
    Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 22:41
  • 1
    A field name can't hold colons. Solution: open your .osm file with any text editor and replace colons with underlines, save it and export to shapefile. .osm file is an XML, you can manage contents easily.
    – aldo_tapia
    Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 1:02

According to the same Esri article that you cite:

These limits are imposed so that ArcGIS is able to function with the maximum amount of data types.

Consequently, even if you are not prevented from using the colon in a field name by whatever software you are using to create shapefiles, you will be unwise to use them with ArcGIS.


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